When the RMS Titanic disappeared beneath the dark waves of the North Atlantic in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912, it left many mysteries in its wake. One of the most puzzling, even now, was the behavior of the passengers and crew. Why did so many people on board act so calmly when more than 1,500 of them would die in a matter of hours?
The short answer: No one knew, when they were first summoned to the deck around midnight on that clear, cloudless night, that the unthinkable would happen: That there were roughly half the number of lifeboats needed. Or that the ship visible in the distance would never arrive. Or that the celebrated behemoth of a ship would actually go under.
To be sure, some panic would ensue as time went on—especially as lifeboats became scarce, the ship began to perceptibly tilt, and anything not nailed down became a high-speed projectile. But while popular movies and other dramatizations of the disaster have played up isolated incidents of chaos and cowardice, most survivors told a different story.
“There was no commotion, no panic and no one seemed to be particularly frightened,” first-class passenger Eloise Smith testified in a U.S. Senate hearing on the disaster. “I had not the least suspicion of the scarcity of lifeboats, or I never should have left my husband.”
“I watched the boats on the starboard side, as they were successively filled and lowered away,” Washington Dodge, a physician, reported. “At no time during this period, was there any panic, or evidence of fear, or unusual alarm. I saw no women nor children weep, nor were there any evidences of hysteria…”
Even survivors who remained on the Titanic after the last lifeboats rowed off and soon found themselves in the icy water, marveled at what they saw. Charles Lightoller, the highest-ranking crew member to survive, was in charge of loading lifeboats on the port side. “There was no jostling or pushing or crowding whatever,” he testified at a British inquiry. “The men all refrained from asserting their strength and from crowding back the women and children. They could not have stood quieter if they had been in church.”
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A Disaster in Slow Motion
The almost leisurely pace with which events unfolded during the Titanic’s final hours may offer some clue to the calm. The Titanic grazed the fatal iceberg at 11:40 p.m. on April 14, creating what is now believed to be a series of punctures below the waterline. Many passengers were in bed at the time, and few survivors said they noticed anything more than a slight vibration, if even that. When stewards eventually came knocking to rouse the passengers and suggest they get dressed and come on deck, it was the first hint most of them had that anything was wrong.
It wasn’t until 12:05 a.m. that crew members began to uncover the lifeboats, and another 40 minutes passed before the first lifeboat was lowered. At that same time, 12:45, the crew started to fire off rockets. Longtime travelers would have recognized that as a serious distress signal, but less experienced ones might not have.
The crew continued to load passengers into lifeboats until the last one was lowered at 2:05 a.m. Fifteen minutes later, the Titanic was gone.
A State of Disbelief
Throughout the loading of lifeboats, the atmosphere on deck remained almost eerily calm, if survivor accounts are to be believed. “We stood there quietly looking on at the work of the crew as they manned the lifeboats, and no one ventured to interfere with them,” second-class passenger Lawrence Beesley recalled. “The crowd of men and women stood quietly on the deck or paced slowly up and down waiting for orders from the officers.”
That said, there were several credible reports of men jumping into the boats before being ordered out by the ship’s officers. One officer fired a pistol at least three times to maintain order, but later insisted he hadn’t shot at anyone. Some survivor accounts reported more shots and even several killings, but those claims have never been proven.
One reason for the overall calm is that the crew deliberately downplayed the danger to prevent panic. Lightoller, for example, assured passengers the lifeboats were being lowered simply as a precaution and that a rescue ship was already visible just a few miles away. (That was most likely the Californian, whose apparent failure to answer the Titanic’s distress calls is another enduring mystery.)
The Titanic’s band also did its part, playing cheerful tunes almost to the very end, survivors reported.
Many others seem simply to have been in denial. Even after being told that the ship was sinking, stewardess Violet Jessop recalled, “My mind, usually adjustable to sudden and unforeseen happenings, could not accept the fact that this superperfect creation was to do so futile a thing as sink.”
First-class passenger Elizabeth W. Shutes remembered that she and her fellow lifeboat occupants wanted to stay close to the Titanic. “We all felt so much safer near the ship,” she wrote. “Surely such a vessel could not sink. I thought the danger must be exaggerated, and we could all be taken aboard again.”
Passenger Beesley, who published a book just weeks after the disaster, made the point that while the world now knew how the Titanic’s story ended, the disaster’s actual participants could not. They relied on what little information they had and many erred on the side of optimism. Even “after we had embarked in the lifeboats,” he wrote, “it would not have surprised us to hear that all passengers would be saved.”
Passenger Archibald Gracie, who published an account of the disaster in 1913, offered still another explanation—one that seems to have been widely accepted at the time, as racist as it may seem today. “The coolness, courage, and sense of duty that I here witnessed made me thankful to God and proud of my Anglo-Saxon race that gave this perfect and superb exhibition of self-control at this hour of severest trial,” he wrote.
Gracie’s view was reinforced by eyewitness accounts of how John Jacob Astor, among the richest men in the world, had behaved in the face of death. According to multiple survivors, Astor put his pregnant young wife in a lifeboat, politely asked if he might accompany her, and, when told that only women were allowed, simply stepped back with the rest of the men. He died in the sinking.
What About the Steerage Passengers?
While survivor accounts offer a fairly consistent picture of events on the upper decks, far less is known about what was happening lower in the ship, where the third-class, or steerage, passengers were housed—and where many remained to the end. Few third-class passengers left written accounts or were called to testify in the British or American investigations. And far more of them died. Of the 165 women in third class, for example, only 76, or 46 percent, survived. Of the 237 women in first or second class, 220, or close to 93 percent, survived.
The White Star Line insisted that third-class passengers weren’t intentionally held back from the upper decks, where they might have had a chance of survival. Some defenders of the line said the passengers were afraid to leave the big ship or to go without their belongings, which were often all they had in the world. Others blamed the language barrier, which made it impossible for many of the immigrants on board to understand crew members’ instructions or read the Titanic’s signage and find their way around the ship. Later investigators also remarked on the ill-preparedness of much of the crew, which had, for example, never conducted more than a token lifeboat drill during the voyage.
Preeminent Titanic historian Walter Lord came to a harsher conclusion in The Night Lives On, the 1986 sequel to his 1955 classic, A Night to Remember. While the line may have had “no set policy” of discriminating based on class, he wrote, testimony at the inquiries “showed clearly that the men in steerage were held back and that the women had what amounted to an hour’s handicap in the race for the boats.”
As is often the case, the least advantaged not only suffered disproportionately but had less opportunity to put their story on the record for history.